PENNYSTONE ROCK AND SINGLETON THORP
by Ted Lightbown.
It used to be said that all knowledge can be found in books, although now people expect everything to be on the Internet. But it does raise the question, from where do authors get their information? All too often answer is from earlier books, but at some stage the information must have been obtained from what might be called primary sources.
In this examination of the subject, because of its nature, like many others, I shall have to rely mainly on published sources. Most modern accounts for popular consumption are based on the writings of Hutton, Thornber, Waugh, Halstead and Ashton, but, more often than not, via the pens of Allen Clarke and Kathleen Eyre. Indeed, each successive writer has added their own interpretation, distortion and errors to the legends.
These were dealt with by the late Harry Peters of Carleton , in a lengthy and pedantic paper in the 1970s (a copy is in the LRO). His thesis is, more than anything, an indictment of the sloppiness of all the historians who have touched on the subject. Peters was very thorough in his search of the literary evidence, all of which is presented and scrutinised in his paper and it should not be ignored by anyone investigating the subject. However, much space is given to analysing the statements of later writers. These could easily have been dismissed as being derivative.
Clearly, to get to grips with the subject, it is necessary to establish the earliest sources, but first we must separate what are essentially two legends, which have become entangled over the years.
William Hutton, a Birmingham businessman, was the first person to mention a legend of an Inn at Pennystone Rock. He did not, as some writers have assumed, mention Singleton Thorp at all.
In 1789, Hutton published a description of Blackpool following his visit the year before. It was reprinted by the Fylde Historical society in 1944 and reads as follows:--
My intelligent informer pointed to a stone in the sea, at least half a mile from the shore, but as I did not visit it I cannot ascertain its dimensions; my curious reader will pardon me if I err when I say it may be eight feet high, and forty in circumference. He observed “that according to a tradition which was allowed by the whole country, a public house, some ages back, stood by that stone, upon land as firm and high as that on which we were, and that iron hooks had been fixed in the stone, to which travellers hung their horses while they drank their penny pots, from whence the stone acquired and still bears the name of penny-stone. That the hooks had long been gone, and he seemed to lament that the spot which once produced famous ale abounded ‘with nothing but water; that a man then preserved his life where he might now lose it; . . . Covered with sea-weeds instead of hooks, the stone now appears a venerable antique, and, viewed in some directions, fancy might easily convert it into a sea monster with a savage head. The tide rises much higher than the stone. There are several others, but none so large.
(Notice that Hutton refers to tethering hooks that had been fixed to the rock.)
The Rev.William Thornber, in his history of Blackpool and its neighbourhood of 1837, tells us more about Pennystone : —
“The pedestrian, moreover, in his rambles on the shore, will perceive the sands studded irregularly with stones of different sizes, and, in places, covered with skeers and gnarrs. About three miles to the north stands Penny-stone, which can only be ap¬proached when the tide has retired to its lowest point of ebb. Covered with muscles, it raises its hoary head, and looking like a veteran commander of tall majestic stature, it overtops, toto vertice, the diminutive satellites by which it is surrounded. Tradition, handed down from father to son, has a brief but singular story relative to this stone, viz., that in olden time it stood in the midst of a green plain, on which was a public hostel, or inn, famous for its ale of prime quality; and that, while the traveller was recruiting himself within doors with a penny pot of that good old English beverage, the bridle of his horse was attached to it by a ring.
“Hence originated, we are told, the name of Penny-stone, from the price of a penny per pot being paid for the liquor. I have frequently been informed that writings concerning this inn are still in exist¬ence, but I never was able to learn in whose possession they are to be found: moreover, I have heard it asserted, on no mean authority, that about eighty or ninety years ago, when a most awful storm occurred, accompanied, says my informer, by some violent concussion of the waters, the deep sand, in whose bed one half of Penny-stone generally lies buried, being swept away, walls evidently encircling an enclosure were seen by a gentleman who lived in the neighbourhood.
“I dare not altogether doubt the probability of this story, or the correctness of the whole tradition,—the country would rise up in arms against me, scouting me as a sceptic; nor am I justified in discrediting the possibility that an inn might formerly stand in the vicinity of the present site of this stone. I may, perhaps, be allowed to tell my readers, that … it must have been manufactured within the cliff and have fallen from it as similar ones do at present. The ring, which our old fishermen affirm that they have seen attached to Penny-stone, I con¬jecture to have been placed there by some merry wag, who intended to set at rest any doubt respecting the use to which it had been applied, and that the origin of its name might no longer be dubious. The fact of its being a concretion similar to the stones of Eagberg, and that others, both great and small, of the very same formation, lie scattered at intervals from the foot of the brow, even beyond Penny-stone, far into the deep sea, would of itself establish a confidence in my mind that the waters have washed away a vast territory, - - -”
There are differences between the two accounts – a ring instead of hooks for instance. But Thornber’s candid tone suggests that he is relating a legend that he has heard himself rather than just elaborating Hutton’s version. The problem is that once a legend has been published, the evidence for it, folklore, is swamped by those eager to recount what they have read as something they had always known.
Thornber, a keen amateur geologist, goes on to describe other rocks in the vicinity and he was the first to mention many of their names, some of which he may have ascribed himself:--
“To the west of this famous stone another, known by the name of Old Mother’s Head, … is at times deserted by the wa¬ters. I have seen it when entirely covered with pink sea anemones, some, as it were, in full bloom, others just budding, and the rest hanging down from their base in quest of the water, or in wonder at their unusual situation. Other stones there are, known from time imme¬morial by the name of Carlin and his colts, Higher and Lower Gingle, Silkstone, Bear and Staff, and the Coup off Blackpool ;—skeers, too, have pecu¬liar designations, as Singleton, Ginnel, Higher and Lower Ashton, Blackstone, Ridge, Clout and Patch, and Oyster skeer.”
In most cases we can only guess which names apply to which rocks.
In his book “Lancashire Sketches”, Edwin Waugh devotes a chapter to a charming description of the hamlet of Norbreck and his visit to Pennystone Rock on the occasion of a very low tide on the 5th March 1860 (not in April as both Allen Clarke and Evans state):--
“It was a cloudless, summer-like evening, when our little company of four set out from Norbreck. Owd England led the way, with his favourite stick in hand, and a basket on his arm for the collection of a kind of salt¬water snail called "whilks".
“As we went on, … the fine old man kept steadily ahead, muttering his wayward fancies as he made towards the silver fringe that played upon the skirts of the sea. Now and then he stopped to point out the rocks and tell their names.”
[The following paragraph was written by Waugh as though in dialect but is here adapted to fairly normal English.]
‘That’s the Carlin and Colts, a common sight enough. You see its not far out. . . . Yons the Mussel Rock, down to southard. But we’re not going that way. Tack round by the sand bank there. You’re not shod for wading and this skeer’s a very rough one. . . That’s Penny Stone in front of you towards the sea. You’ll have heard of it many a time. There was once a public house where it stands. Mr. Thornber of Blackpool has written a book about it. Now, the furthest, near low water, is Old Woman’s Head. I’ve often heard of it and sometimes seen a bit of the tip above the water, but I’ve never seen it dry in my life before and I never will again.’
“As we neared the water, the skeers were more rugged and wet, and in a few minutes we picked up a basketful of ‘whilks’ and a beautiful variety of the sea anemone.
“The tide was returning, and the air getting cold, so we went homewards, with wandering steps, in the wake of our old fisherman, by way of Penny Stone Rock. There is a tradition all over the Fylde that this rock, now only visible ‘on the utmost verge of the retired wave’, marks the locality of a once famous hostelry. Doubtless the tradition has some foundation in fact, as the encroachments of the sea upon this coast have been great, and sometimes disastrous, as in the destruction of the village of Singleton Thorpe, about a mile and a half to northward, in 1555.
“As we drew near it, we saw five persons coming over the shining sands towards the same spot, and we heard merry voices ringing in the air. I first made out my friend Alston, in his strong shooting-dress of light-coloured tweed, attended by two favourite terriers, Wasp and Snap. We met at the rock, and I found my friend accompanied by three “brethren of the mystic tie,” one of whom was Mr. Thornber, the veritable chronicler of Penny Stone. The latter had wandered thus far, with his companions, mainly to avail himself of this rare chance of climbing his pet legendary crag. His hands were full of botanical specimens from the sea, and, in his fervid way, he descanted upon them, and upon the geology of the coast, in a manner which, I am sorry to say, was almost lost to my uninitiated mind. I took the opportunity of inquiring where he found the materials for his tradition. He answered that there was no doubt of its fundamental truth, “but, as to the details wrought into the story,” said he, pointing to his fore¬head, with a laugh, “I found them in a cellar, deep down in the rock here.”
“The gloomy mass was surrounded by a little moat of salt water, nearly knee-deep, through which we passed; and then, clinging to its Triton locks of sea-weeds, we climbed the slippery peaks of Penny Stone. The stout lad in attendance drew a bottle from his basket; and then each in his way celebrated this unexpected meeting in that singular spot, where we should never meet together again.
“I shall never forget the sombre splendour of the scene, nor the striking appearance of the group upon that lonely rock, when the rearward hues of day were yielding their room to “sad succeeding night.”
Later writers have said that Thornber got drunk there on whisky, but Waugh only mentions one bottle of some unspecified drink between 9 (4+5) persons. Nor is there a mention of excavations.
You will have noticed that neither of these writers claimed to have seen a hook or ring attached to the rock themselves. Yet there have been reputed sightings since then into modern times. Human nature being what it is, there is no reason that such reports should be taken seriously.
The earliest established reference to Singleton Thorp was not by Hutton or Thornber, but in a book by Peter Whittle entitled “Marina, an historical and descriptive account of Southport, Lytham and Blackpool” published in 1831, six years before Thornber’s history of Blackpool. Not one of the many books touching on the subject acknowledges this fact and almost invariably Thornber is held responsible for the story.
“1554. During the days of Mary Queen of England, a sudden irruption of the sea took place at Rossal Grange, — the sea washed in a whole village, called Singleton Thorp. The inhabitants were obliged to flee from the ancient spot, and erected their tents at the place called Singleton to this day”.- Dodsworth.
In the next paragraph Whittle states:-
In the year 1792 at low water mark, a number of trunks of trees lay in various directions upon the sands of the sea, which proved that there had been a village near Rossal. The inhabitants it is said fled - when the degradations of their property and homes took place, through the incursions of the tide - and planted themselves as a kind of colony, where Singleton village now is.”
Thornber’s version of 1837 is as follows:-
In the reign of Mary 1554, “a sudden irruption of the sea” says Dodsworth, took place at Rossal grange; a whole village, called Singleton Thorp, was swept away by its fury - the inhabitants were obliged to flee from the ancient spot, and erected their tents at a place called Singleton to this day.”
A little further on, Thornber also mentions trunks of trees on the coast near Rossal in 1792. And contrary to what Allen Clarke and Graham Evans claim, Hutton never mentioned any of this.
The obvious question arises is— are Whittle and Thornber quoting Dodsworth independently or is Thornber copying from Whittle?
Well, preceding Thornber’s paragraph on Singleton Thorp is an account of the last Catholic service at Bispham Church in 1559, citing “Rishton’s Diary” as the source. Thornber was heavily criticised for it by Colonel Fishwick in his history of Bispham. He demonstrated that the story was without foundation. However, the same story is to be found in Whittle’s “Marina” on the very page he mentions Singleton Thorp.
I should mention also that Whittle’s section on Lytham contains two references to a village called Waddum Thorp which supposedly existed until 1601. One reference he ascribes to Dodsworth and the other to the Charles Leigh, another 17th century antiquary. Thornber also mentions Waddum Thorp, citing Dodsworth and inevitably he is blamed for this, too.
On the face of it, though, Thornber’s only crime is that he copied from Whittle. And he can hardly be accused of plagiarism as he duly cites sources given by Whittle.
Did Whittle, then, find a reference by Roger Dodsworth to Singleton Thorp, or for that matter Waddum Thorp?
Ashton and Eyre maintained that many had searched the Dodsworth MSS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, without finding a single reference to the Thorps. Harry Peters pointed out that neither Whittle nor Thornber specifically mentioned the Bodleian MSS in this context and that there are others by Dodsworth elsewhere, as well as a published work by him, 'Monasticum Anglicanum'. Of the 161 Volumes in the Bodleian, however, only 36 are indexed and it was these alone that Ashton searched. It is unlikely that anyone has ever waded through the remaining mass of documents. The only known work of Charles Leigh, the other person cited by Whittle, is his Natural History of Lancashire, but it makes no mention of Waddum Thorp.
It could be conjectured that Whittle had obtained the Thorp stories either verbally from Thornber or from an unpublished or newspaper article by him. Thornber is known to have consulted the Bodleian’s Dodsworth material while at Oxford. However, until evidence is found to support this view, Whittle must be regarded as the earliest source.
You may have heard something of William Thornber’s personality; but what is known about “P. Whittle F.S.A.—R,” as he descibes himself on the title page of Marina? The letters after his name stand for “Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries", the “—R” meaning either resigned or rejected. The Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he was born at Inglewhite in 1789 and began business as a bookseller and printer at Preston in 1810. He was intelligent but ill-educated and his works, though not without value, abound in errors. His first book, “A Topographical account of Preston” was published in 1821 under the pseudonym “Marmaduke Tulket”.
Dr. Eric Glasgow, in a letter to Harry Peters, comments:- “I agree that Whittle probably invented little but he certainly copied hugely from all the previous published sources and he neither checked his facts nor did much first hand research for himself. His work, therefore, must always be more interesting as antiquarian relics, than reliable or accurate.” His obituary in 1866 adds:— “The data which he wrote upon was, no doubt, in many instances the best he could possibly get hold of, and to that extent his inaccuracies may be overlooked. As an author he has notwithstanding been long superseded and his books are now picked up more as literary curiosities than volumes containing readable facts.”
As soon as it had been published, Marina prompted a derisory letter in the Preston Chronicle, describing it as “a scrap-book of shreds and patches of fine poetry and sentiments ... and scraps collected chiefly from your paper.” Brian Turner managed to untangle the sources of the main text of Marina’s Lytham section for an appendix to his recent book on Victorian Lytham, but it took three pages to do so and had to be eliminated.
It is tempting to think, then, that Whittle’s references to Singleton and Waddum Thorps were dreamt up to give weight to the book and his antiquarian pretensions.
The list of historians who have since mentioned the “Thorps” in their books is a long one. I suspect that few were aware of the extent of the earliest source’s unreliability and even fewer readers would have any notion of it at all.
Thornber not only repeated the stories unquestioningly, but seems to have then linked the name Singleton Thorp to those of certain shingle banks and rocks in the Norbreck Area. This apparently inspired him to form a theory which entailed moving the stated site of Singleton Thorp from Rossal Grange to the vicinity of Norbreck. Following on in 1837 he writes:¬
“Probably this Singleton Thorp, (Shin¬gleton,) destroyed by the water, was the residence of Thomas de Singleton, who resisted Edward I. in an action to recover for the king the manors of Sin¬gleton, Thornton, and Broughton; and we know that Singleton, where the outcasts found a home, belonged to the same proprietors. The existence of Singleton Thorp has, by some, been doubted; but its situa¬tion is at this day known by the name of Singleton Skeer, and the two large stones on the shore, called “Lower Gingle, and Higher Gingle,” appear to have some reference to the two ancient mansions of the same name, in the township of Whittingham, parish of Kirkham, which mansions belonged to the family of this same Singleton.”
His imagination seems to have been so fired by the story that in 1845 he published a novel called “Pennystone” —“Penny dreadful” might have been a more fitting title, for although his book contains much eloquence, he was no Sir Walter Scott. In the book he wove Singleton Thorp, local traditions and history into a tale involving the Spanish Armada. Of course, to do so he had to move the date of the inundation from 1554 to 1588, which is fair enough in a work of fiction.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to separate fiction, tradition and history within its covers and several historians, failing to appreciate its true nature, have taken Thornber to task for it. Others have represented elements of the story-line as being tradition.
Alfred Halstead, editor of the Blackpool Times, was one who was influenced by Thornber’s romance. In 1893, he led an expedition to search for Singleton Thorp and subsequently published a pamphlet describing its findings, from which I shall quote.
After several pages of waffle he writes:--
“But what about Singleton Thorp? As we mentioned in our article our attention was first directed to it by Mr. Chew, of Albert road, who told us he had, some five years ago, noticed the signs of the buried forest at a low tide.
“We suggested another expedition to see if anything was still to be noticed. On that fine September afternoon … and with one of the lowest tides of the year, we soon found evidence that we were walking over a buried forest—the site of the old village of Singleton Thorp—destroyed by an irruption of the sea in 1555, or 1588. Accordingly a small party took spades, pickaxes, and other implements, bent on discovery of some good evidence that a village had existed there. We began operations at a point nearly opposite the hulking which slopes to the sea about half a mile from Rossall, and about four miles north of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We could trace the buried forest in the way of fallen trees with their branches, and even their twigs and leaves, with mosses, ferns, etc., for about a mile along the shore at low water mark, and about half a mile inland. The nearer the sea and the more we saw.
“Evidences of the foundations of houses were not wanting. Our attention was first directed to what looked like a log tree. Closer notice revealed that it was quite different in shape from the other trees half buried in the sand. …we found it to be a straight and square piece of timber, about 17ft. long, and 13in. square breadth. There were the marks of other pieces of timber being fastened to it. One member of the party was confident this piece of timber was a remnant a famous wreck near this place some 40 years ago, but he abandoned this view as soon as the whole log was uncovered. It was, as plain as could be, the rafter of a large room of a house. This was confirmed by the fact that at an angle of 45˚ we traced the foundations of what was evidently the wall of a house. There was a large trench, with rough lime mixed with large cobble-stones near the bottom of the trench, the stones getting smaller towards the top of the trench. There was no mistaking this rubble-wall foundation. The course of it was in a straight line; it measured about 22ft. in length, though we could not find a clear and unmistakable finish to it at one end, though we could at the seaward end, and the angle of the wall where it joined another was clearly visible. Besides, the clay on each side of the wall was evident enough.
“That there was a cottage there is admitted on all sides. We found in another place, about 150 yards from the fallen rafter, the same evidence of some sort of building. The rubble foundation, and the coarse lime and pebble mixture upon it was plainly visible; but it was too near the waves to follow it to the end. That we were on the site of the ruined and wave-swept village, there could be no doubt. Wherever we dug our spades we came upon the forest growths that we have described — not exactly as peat, but the peat in process of its formation.”
Halstead had assumed that the remains of trees were evidence for Singleton Thorp, in that they would have been growing at the period in question. In 1974 a letter by Dr Michael Tooley of Durham University’s Geography Department was published in Lancashire Life in response to an article on Singleton Thorp. This is what it says:--
“I was interested to read … an article by A. P. Maitland concerning ‘the reputed lost village of Singleton Thorpe’ and recent action of the sea in uncovering a large area of trees and tree stumps near Cleveleys.
“An examination of the pollen, seeds and wood of the peat bed which Mr. Maitland has des¬cribed at Cleveleys shows that two trees dominated the wood¬lands — birch and poplar. But there was much open, grassy vegetation, with rock roses and grass of parnassus. Around water-filled depressions, willows grew, and pond weeds floated on the water surface. From this vegetation it is possible to indicate a time for its accumula-tion as earlier than 11,000 years ago. A dating of the peat shows it to be 12,400 years old.
“At this time, the sea-level was much lower than it is today, and it would have been possible to walk from the Fylde to Ireland on dry land.
“At this time also, … there were mesolithic folk living in this area. And at the time the peat was accumulating on what some ten thousand years later was to become Cleveleys foreshore. These folk were hunting elk and red deer — as a recent find at Poulton-le-Fylde has proved.
“The submerged forest which Mr. Maitland has described is of much greater antiquity than and is in no way related to Singleton Thorpe. That much is unequivocal. As for the veracity of the existence of Singleton Thorpe, one can only join Mr. Maitland in speculation: I have walked most of the inter-tidal zone of the Fylde at low water and have dug in the area described by Ashton and Halstead, but with no success. It may very well be that Singleton Thorpe is no more than a myth.
Department of Geography.
University of Durham.”
But what of the remains of buildings found? Unfortunately, Halstead is rather vague about their location and all that can be deduced is that they were somewhere off Cleveleys. However, Halstead and his companions were certain that they had found buildings, so perhaps we should keep an open mind.
There is no doubt that erosion has taken place along this coast, although not always at the rate sometimes suggested. It would be a mistake to extrapolate the rates experienced at North Shore and at Bispham in the late 19th and early 20th century back any further than the construction of sea defences at Blackpool, as they exacerbated erosion further north. There is every reason to expect that there would have been dwellings, farms and even hamlets on land later lost to the sea. However, it does seem extremely unlikely that there was ever a village out there called Singleton Thorp.
On the other hand, the story about Pennystone Rock, as told to Hutton, does smack of a folk memory of a building lost to the sea, particularly in the naive logic of the derivation of its name. As the tale was passed down, those telling it would have been asked where the inn had stood. What could have been more natural, when scanning an otherwise empty beach, than to have pointed to a large rock at the water’s edge.
All I have written above will make little difference, though; the tales will still crop up in local newspapers and popular histories, along with other historical myths and half truths, for many years to come.
March 1991, 2008, 2015.